The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the primary repository for lighthouse records. NARA is the nation's record keeper. Established in 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt, the National Archives collects and preseves records of the U.S. Federal government that are deemed important for legal or historical reasons. The holdings are organized according to Federal agencies. Record Group 26 covers the U.S. Coast Guard and its predecessor agencies--the U.S. Lighthouse Service, the U.S. Lifesaving Service, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, and the Steamboat Inspection Service.
The National Archives is located in a number of locations around the country with the two main locations in Washington, D.C. The regional archives locations may have some local lighthouse information.
The National Archives (The major location of lighthouse information)
Seventh and Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20408
Archives II (Lighthouse photographs and drawings)
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
We suggest that you begin with the National Archives Lighthouse Research Page at:
In addition, the National Archives manages the rapidly growing number of electronic Government records. Now being developed, the Electronic Records Archives (ERA) is their response to the challenge of preserving, managing, and providing access to electronic records. You will find many lighthouse photographs and some written material available online.
What to ask for During Your Visit
The Archives stores millions of items for many subjects. You cannot go in and ask for everything for lighthouse XXX, because things are not stored in that manner. Items are stored by agency or department such as letters from department X, letters to department X, things related to land, things related to patents, etc. While there are more than 300 different item categories or "entries," just in Record Group 26, there are a small number of entries that are easiest to work with. For each record group there is a ‘Finding Aid’ that is available in the Reference Room where the research consultants are located. Very often there are detailed "box lists" that will give you more specific information on where a specific lighthouse or topic is located. The research consultants will help you identify the items you need and will show you how to fill out the necessary forms to have your items pulled from the storage areas and made available for your use. The following are the entries from the ‘Finding Aid’ for Record Group 26 that you should consider requesting:
Entry 6 (A-1) Descriptive Lists of Lighthouse Stations (organized by state and then by lighthouse name). This is a file folder for each lighthouse that contains a booklet of about 20 pages, which was produced around 1910. It describes the lighthouse and provides many details of its construction and contents.
Entry 13 (NC-63) Clippings Relating to Lighthouses (organized by lighthouse district and then by lighthouse name). Each lighthouse folder contains clippings from the Annual Reports of the Light-House Board. Each clipping will tell about new construction, changes and repairs at the lighthouse from 1852 to about 1910.
Entry 66 (NC-31) Lighthouse Site Files (organized by district and then by lighthouse name). This is a file of the records associated with the land at a particular lighthouse. It includes plot maps, deeds, amount paid for the land, leases, resales of portions of the lighthouse site if they occurred, etc.
Entry 80 (NC-31) Lighthouse Station Logs (organized by lighthouse name). These are the actual logs kept by the lighthouse keepers, giving the daily weather and happenings at the lighthouse. These logs are usually available from about 1872 to 1939; however, they may not be available for all of those years or, in some cases, be available at all. There are also logs for the WWII period, 1950s, and 1960s in other entries. There are finding aids for the logbooks for both lighthouses and vessels on the National Archives website.
Entry 38 (NC-31) is an index to letters received by the U.S. Light-House Board from 1852 - 1901. Arranged alphabetically and then chronologically, each index slip provides a summary of letters received from District Inspectors, Engineers, contractors, and other individuals writing the U.S. Light-House Board.
Entry 48 (NC-31) Correspondence of the U.S. Light-House Board, 1901 - 1910, is organized by file number. Use the 1901 - 1910 subject index in Entry 50 (NC-31) to identify the file number for your lighthouse.
Entry 50 (NC-31) Correspondence of the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses, 1911 - 1939, is also organized by file number. Use the 1911 - 1950 subject index in Entry 50 (NC-31) to identify the file number.
If your lighthouse was built prior to 1852, consult Entry 18 (NC-31) containing letters from the Lighthouse Establishment (primarily Stephen Pleasonton) which are arranged chronologically and Entry 17C (NC-31), Letters from the Superintendent of Lights (organized by port).
The U.S. Lighthouse Society's Historian, Candace Clifford, has a lot of experience doing research in the National Archives. She has developed a more expansive list of lighthouse records on her website.
If you have a lighthouse with a name similar to another, be sure to double check under both names for possible data sources. For instance, on a recent visit to the archives by Society staff, a log book for Sand Island, Lake Superior, Wisconsin was found erroneously stored as Sand Island, Mobile Bay, Alabama. Also be sure to check for name changes, which may have occurred at your station. For example Au Sable Point Light Station on Lake Superior was originally named Big Sable Point Light Station and the name was changed to Au Sable in 1910. At the same time, there was a light named Grande Pointe Au Sable on Lake Michigan, which in 1910 was renamed Big Sable Point Light Station. You will find the records of these two stations intermixed.
The research consultant will help you create a request form to pull the items mentioned above. Before you start however, you must register for a research card. You will be required to watch a Power Point presentation on using the Archives. A picture ID is required to enter the building and acquire a research card. There are several pulls each day with the first pull at 10:00 a.m. and the last at 3:00 p.m. (It generally takes about 45 minutes to an hour after a pull to receive your records.) The research consultant will take your request forms and send them to the people who will pull your records from the storage area. You will need to store your jacket, purse, etc., in lockers provided on the first floor. You cannot take these items into the research room. Note: you are allowed to take laptop computers into the room, if you wish. Cameras, without their case, are allowed in the research room but turn off the camera's flash. Many researchers use their cell phones as cameras and there are camera stands specifically for cell phones available where you sign out your records. You can also sign up for a regular camera stand for one-hour time slots.
The main research or "reading" room is located directly in front of the elevators on the second floor. You will present your research card to the security guard inside the door and then report to the central desk to sign out your records. Find an empty table in the room and wait for your records to arrive from the storage area. The records will come on a roll-around cart, usually in a number of gray boxes, and your name will be called. You can then take the cart to the table where you are sitting and begin your research. Note: there are a number of rules you will have to follow while doing your research and the people at the main counter will give you instructions. You may copy most items yourself, on copiers located within the room, but you MUST show each item you wish to copy to the people at the main counter before going to the copiers. The copiers are operated by your research card. Ask the staff how to put money on your card. The copier can accommodate a thumb drive if you prefer digital copies. All copies are 25 cents.
It will take about a day for you to work with the information in Entries 6, 13, 38, 48, 50, and 66. The logbooks, in entry 80, will take several days to read if they are available for all years. These logs can be difficult to read (they are all hand written) and may yield much or little information. For the early years, they are formatted with two pages per month, with each day a single line on the two pages. Generally the left-hand page is a weather report and the right-hand page contains entries for what is happening at the lighthouse. Many times you will read month after month with only entries like “doing chores” or “cleaning” and then you will come to a great entry about a shipwreck that may cover two or three pages, or an entry like, “my baby daughter Jane died last night, took the body to town.”
Archives II is located north east of Washington, DC in College Park, Maryland. You can get a shuttle bus from the main Archives to take you to Archives II or you can drive there. If you drive, take Interstate 495, north of the city and head east until you get to the New Hampshire Avenue exit. Go south on New Hampshire Avenue and immediately get in the left lane. Turn left, in about ¼ mile, from New Hampshire Avenue on to Adelphi Road, go about 1 mile and you will see signs for Archives II. It is open the same hours as the main Archives and your Archives identification card is also valid for Archives II.
At Archives II there are two sources of information. The Cartographic Branch on the 3rd floor has drawings and plans of lighthouses and lighthouse properties. Go to the 3rd floor, Cartographic Research Room, and ask one of the research consultants for help in locating information on your specific lighthouse. They have a finding guide by state and then by Lighthouse. They will have you fill out the same kind of pull form you used at the main Archives, and will bring you the drawings on a large cart. It is best to ask for all the drawings and plans for your lighthouse rather than specific drawings. You can then look at the drawings and select the ones you want to have copied. Note the U.S. Lighthouse Society is digitizing the main collection of lighthouse drawings in 2016 and will make them available to Society members.
Archives II is also the location of the Still Picture Branch. Go to the 5th floor, Still Picture Research Room, and ask one of the research consultants for help in locating information on your specific lighthouse. They have a finding guide by state and then by Lighthouse. They will have you fill out the same kind of pull form you used at the main Archives, and will bring you the photographs in gray boxes on a large cart. It is best to ask for all the photographs for your lighthouse rather than specific photos. You can then look at the photos and select the ones you want. You will be issued white gloves and be given the rules for handling the photos. You can take your camera or flatbed scanner with you and make your own copies of their photos. You can also copy certain photos on color copiers located in the room, but this is not allowed for all photos, you will have to ask on a case by case basis. You can also request an outside professional photographer to make copies for you and the research consultants will give you the procedure to use and a listing of photographic companies who do this work.
If you follow these procedures you will have the information you need to compile a basic history of your lighthouse. Later, you can return to the Archives and look at the information about your lighthouse in the many other entries of the finding guide.
As of 2017, the National Archives provided their primary lighthouse photo collection (26-LG) online. You can both view and download 1000s of lighthouse images taken or acquired by the Lighthouse Service between 1855 and 1933.
Lighthouse Keeper’s Documentation
Another item you may wish to research is a listing of the keepers who worked at your lighthouse. For this task you can order microfilms from the Archives containing most of the records. The microfilms can then be read on a 35 mm. film reader at your local library. Order the microfilm by calling 1-800-234-8861 and asking for microfilm 1373. The cost is $34 per roll including shipping. There are 6 rolls of film covering the lighthouse keepers in the United States. This microfilm is also available at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Roll 1 covers – The New England states 1845 to 1913
Roll 2 covers – New York to Virginia 1845 to 1913
Roll 3 covers – North Carolina to Texas 1845 to 1913
Roll 4 covers – Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes 1845 to 1900
Roll 5 covers – Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes 1900 to 1913
Roll 6 covers – The West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii 1845 to 1913
You may ask, what about the keepers before 1845? The best source for this information is Entry 18 (NC-31) Letters Sent Regarding the Lighthouse Service, 1789 - 1852. These volumes are indexed. Look up letters for your lighthouse and you will find copies of the letters approving keeper appointments.
For keepers after 1912, the best source is generally the keeper's logbook. You can also find some information in the following entries:
Entry 110 (NC-31) Classifications of Lighthouse Personnel 1925-1939
Entry 111 (NC-31) Record of Reclassification of Lighthouse Keepers 1922-1928
Entry 118 (NC-31) Proceedings of Board for Induction of Lighthouse Employees into Coast Guard
The National Archives has limited information on individual keepers. (See Candace's blog post on researching keepers.) Personnel records for those who served in lighthouses from 1896 to ca. 1939, are not stored at the main National Archives. If the individual served with the U.S. Lighthouse Service (starting in 1896) or the Coast Guard as a Civilian Employee (lightkeepers prior to 1939 were civilians, many stayed in as civilians after the Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard after 1939), you will need to contact the Civilian Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Personnel records of active duty Coast Guard personnel are stored at the Military Personnel Records Center also in St. Louis. Please be advised that privacy restrictions apply to these records.
U.S. Lighthouse Society members are welcome to consult with Lighthouse Historian Candace Clifford on research related questions.